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Archive for Sunday, July 18, 2004

Martin: Literacy helps people celebrate differences, honor commonalities

July 18, 2004

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Literacy ain't what it used to be.

I'm serious.

The National Endowment for the Arts said recently that fewer than half of American adults read literature. The audience for all kinds of books is shrinking, according to the NEA.

Even the definition of the word "literacy" is changing. It no longer refers, in our country, simply to the skills that let people read and write standard American English.

The word has been stretched to cover forms of communication other than language.

Frank Farmer, associate professor of English at Kansas University, says that in addition to reading words and texts, we also read images and signs, music and movement, song and story.

Certain literacies seem to be age-related. You've noticed, if you're older, that kids are more technologically literate, right?

Visual literacy is also unevenly distributed. Farmer says, "Students in my classes are steeped in visual literacies. They're quite nimble at reading videos, commercials, ads -- the kinds of media they've grown up with."

Literacy isn't just an academic concern. Farmer, along with English department professor emerita Beth Schultz and a number of others, is working with the Lawrence City Commission to use a downtown building as a literacy center.

They see it as a place where people might acquire the old-fashioned literacy tools of reading and writing -- and introduce each other to special literacies. They'd teach each other their "languages" and ways of thinking about communication.

Imagine, says Farmer, a place where pre-school or elementary-school children could be tutored to write poetry, where a civic club member could learn how to design a Web page for the organization, where a local historian could master the tools needed to compile a documentary video on the Kansas River flood of 1951.

Farmer's interest in this project doesn't mean he's not interested in reading and writing. He supervises graduate students who help run a writing group at a shelter for women recovering from substance abuse.

In addition, the education director at the Douglas County Jail, Mike Caron, and two KU English department faculty lead writing groups of inmates at the jail.

The sentences the inmates write are sometimes ungrammatical, the words misspelled, the syntax tortured, at least by conventional standards.

"But they struggle to make sense of their lives with the words they have at their disposal," Farmer says. "In that struggle, they learn something about themselves, each other and the world."

For the world to be healed of the rifts into which it has fallen, learning and appreciating each other's literacies and languages is important.

But it's also important, I think, that we read and discuss some of the same texts and that we not only celebrate our differences but honor what is common in us.

I hate the cliche about being on the same page, but the reality behind the phrase is important to remember.

We need to discover and appreciate each other's literacies, yes. We also need to be literate in the old-fashioned way.

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